Stephanie Randolph - Victim Assistance Specialist, Jacob Wetterling Resource Center
A recent blog by the Girl Scouts of the USA entitled Reminder: She Doesn't Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays. is receiving a lot of attention. If you haven't read it, I suggest you do. Resources like this one help parents as they work to empower their children.
Why is body autonomy so important? Adults hold a large amount of authority in the lives of children. Caretakers often have non-negotiable rules for children such as when they go to bed, eating fruits and vegetables, brushing teeth, and washing hands. These rules are important because they help keep kids safe and healthy. Children are taught to follow these rules because adults know best and want what is best for children. Usually, this is not wrong. However, there are adults and other kids that do hurt children and don't pay attention to body safety rules. We know some people use the authority they have been given to manipulate children, harm them, and then keep them from telling a trusted adult. It is vital that kids are equipped and empowered to communicate with the safe adults around them about when they don't feel safe or comfortable. One way we can do that is by teaching children that they have full authority of their bodies. We should be giving children permission to say no to any touch they don't like or want. Kids should never be forced to give or receive a hug, kiss, or even high-five. Kids should know we all have days when we want affection and have days when we don't want affection and that is ok. When it comes to giving affection, kids should get to choose to whom, what, and how they give that affection.
Let me give you an example from my own family. I have an amazing nephew who is the sweetest and most sensitive child I have ever met. He can’t stand the idea of upsetting or hurting anyone’s feelings. I don’t get to see him very often, so when I do he usually runs and gives me a huge hug. That is a clear indicator to me that he is totally comfortable showing me affection in that moment. Other times, we may just be hanging out and I want to give my adorable nephew a hug. Because he never wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, I am very aware that he needs permission and power to set his own boundaries. I want him to understand if he doesn’t feel like giving me a hug, that doesn’t hurt my feelings or upset me. If he can say no to me, someone he knows and likes, he may feel more empowered to set limits with adults he knows and likes who may have bad intentions. So instead of saying, “Come and give me a hug” I say, “Can I have a hug? Its ok if you are not in the mood.” Sometimes he says, “Yes,” and sometimes he says, “No, thank you.” I respect him when he says no. It doesn’t mean he loves me any less or that he is being rude. I get it, there are sometimes when I don’t want hugs from people in my life, including my partner. Why should I have the ability to say not right now but he doesn’t?
Talking to children about being able to have boundaries with their bodies is an important part of teaching body safety. It is a way to empower children. However, the responsibly to have their boundaries respected should never fall on children. It’s always the adult’s job to make children feel safe and comfortable. Be aware of children’s body language. Some children, like my nephew, have a hard time saying no to an adult even if they have been given permission. So if you ask a child for a hug and they say yes but act like they don’t want to, tell them it is ok if they don’t. We as adults need to educate one another to ask children for affection instead of demanding it. Tell other adults in your child’s life that you expect your child’s boundaries to be respected and then teach them what they can say to your child when they do want to show affection.
NCPTC has a lot of great resources on how to talk to children about body safety and safety rules. These conversations don’t have to be awkward or hard. Have a game night with your children. Talk about seat belt, fire, and bike helmet safety along with body safety. Ask children “What If” questions to get them thinking.